Books Cover

Title: Mike Isabella's Crazy Good Italian, Big Flavors, Small Plates
Author: Mike Isabella with Carol Blymire
334 pages; $35 US, 25 UK, $38 CAN
Publisher: Da Capo Press Lifelong Books, 2012 Boston
Reviewed by, Chef John Vyhnanek

The review--- When I think of an Italian cookbook I envision everything from spaghetti vongole to veal osso bucco and pizza to spumoni. I didn t expect to see that in Mike Isabella s Crazy Good Italian cookbook. Chef Mike found his way to be on the TV shows, Top Chef and Top All-Star Chefs. Chef Mike Isabella opened an Italian-inspired restaurant in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington DC and as he mentions serves 700 to 800 meals a day.

The author, in his preface, states that the recipes in this book reflect the way he likes to eat and that much of what he knows about cooking came from his childhood memories of cooking with his grandmother. So with that said you can instantly see that there will be a new spin to many of the recipes. Bluefish Scapese with Olive Oil-Smashed Potatoes and Red Peppers and the Roasted Ribs with Oregano and Coriander Yogurt are certainly creative!

I tried two recipes, Mike Isabella Style Meatballs and Spiced Orange Compote. The meatballs were straightforward, made with a combination of beef, veal and pork and simply seasoned. The recipe listed mint and mortadella as optional ingredients, I put them in. After rolling into golf ball-size balls they were seared in garlic oil. The flavor was good just plain and better after being simmered in the sauce for 20 minutes. The recipe calls for 1 egg for one and three-quarter pounds meat and 4 slices of white bread with the crust removed but I think an additional egg and two more slices of bread will make them a bit less dense.

The Spiced Orange Compote hit the mark. Orange sections were simmered in sugar, honey and water with cloves, cinnamon and allspice and served over panna cotta with toasted Pinenuts. It was very simple and a perfect dessert for me!

The book is beautiful with its glossy cover and raised print. The quality of the paper is above average making for easy wiping if you spill some sauce on it while cooking one of the creative recipes. I particularly like the pictures which were well taken and gave a good view of the finished dish so you ll be able to duplicate a recipe exactly. The book was fun to look at and will give you a new perspective on how to cook Italian.

Ciao, Buona Cottura!

Recipes tested---!
Meatballs, Mike Isabella Style and Spiced Orange Compote
Meatballs, Mike Isabella Style

Makes 20-25 meatballs
Active time = 1 hour, 30 minutes

1/4 cup plus 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup minced red onion
4 slices white bread, crust removed
1/2 cup whole milk
1 whole egg
1 pound ground beef (80/20 preferred)
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
1 pound ground or finely diced mortadella (optional, but highly recommended)
1 cup finely chopped mint (optional)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
zest of 1 lemon
2 whole garlic cloves
6 cups (The Grand Mother Tomato Sauce, page 134)
you ll have to buy the book!

If you grew up in an Italian-American household you had meatballs, not meatloaf, a few times a month, and every family had their own secret recipe. My meatballs are a take on my grandmother s recipe that I've evolved over the years. I wanted to make the perfect meatball with the most flavor I could get into it. And I wanted to have a soft meatballthat s where the mortadella comes in. It's got just enough fat in it to make the meatballs creamy. And the mint? That s the Greek in me. It just opens it up and makes it taste clean and not heavy.

You can serve these meatballs over polenta with a poached egg. You could braise them in tomato sauce, serve them with pasta or sauteed vegetables, top a pizza with them, or just eat them on their own. They re classic and full of flavor, so have fun with them.

Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Sweat the onions for 10 minutes until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let rest at room temperature. Soak the bread in milk for in milk for 1 minute, Squeeze out the milk and mince the bread.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the onions, bread, egg, meats, mint, oregano, salt, pepper and lemon zest. Mix with your hands until all ingredients are incorporated. Don t over work the meat; you don t want your meatballs to be too dense. Roll the meatballs into 1 1/2 ounce balls (a little smaller than a golf ball).

In a large saute pan, saute the garlic in 1/2 cup olive oil over medium heat for 12-15 minutes, until the garlic turns golden brown. Remove and discard the garlic cloves, and increase the heat to medium-high. Line plate with paper towels.

Sear the meatballs in the garlic-infused oil for 2 minutes on all sides until they are golden brown all the way around. Remove them from the oil with a slotted spoor and let them drain on paper towels.

Heat the tomato sauce in a large saucepan over medium heat. Submerge the seared meatballs in the sauce and simmer for 20 minutes to finish cooking them. The meatballs are ready to serve but can be kept warm in the sauce over low heat for up to 1 hour.

Spiced Orange Compote
Makes: 3/4 Cup
Prep. Time: 20-25 minutes

2 tbsp. pine nuts
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. honey
2 tbsp. water
3 whole dried allspice berries
2 whole cloves
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 oranges, supremed segments

Toast the pine nuts in a dry saute pan over medium heat for 5 minutes, shaking the pan often to prevent burning. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, honey, water allspice, cloves and cinnamon stick to a simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it becomes syrup-like.

Strain and discard the spices. Return the liquid to the sauce pan and add the orange segments and toasted pine nuts. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 6-7 minutes longer, until the oranges are soft. Remove the compote from the heat and let it cool before spooning it onto the panna cotta.